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TV IS THE NEW CINEMA: Skip 'Helix,' Watch 'Sherlock,' 'Girls' Nudity Debate & More 'True Detective'

Thompson on Hollywood By David Chute | Thompson on Hollywood January 14, 2014 at 5:44PM

Cumberbitches protest lack of nudity on "Sherlock."
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Martin Freeman, Lars Mikkelsen, Benedict Cumberbatch of "Sherlock" (PBS)
PBS Martin Freeman, Lars Mikkelsen, Benedict Cumberbatch of "Sherlock" (PBS)

"Sherlock" (PBS) returns for a third season on Masterpiece, recently announced as its penultimate. This is a season likely to divide fans, taking further large steps in the direction of being less a detective series than a drama series about a detective. Viewers who hated the seasons of "Doctor Who" that presented the possibility that the Doctor might have a life outside the Tardis (notably in the all-time-great season three two-parter "Being Human" and "The Family of Blood") are likely to bristle at the overtly bromantic spectacle of Sherlock making the best man speech at Watson’s wedding, or canoodling in the tub at 221B with an apparent girl friend. 

The revisionism comes to a head in episode three, in ways at which I will not even hint. The episode also introduces the show’s most deliciously loathsome bad guy, upstaging even Andrew Scott’s Moriarty. "I have a condition," purrs Charles Augustus Magnussen (Denmark’s Lars Mikkelsen, brother of Mads), who has chronically sweaty palms. "The world is wet to my touch," he explains.

The Magnussen episode makes visually inventive use of the notion of the Memory Palace, a mnemonic technique dating back to the Middle Ages, before it was possible to put a library on a thumb drive. In fact, the visual virtuosity of this short season of three episodes is impressive even for "Sherlock," which has always found clever graphical equivalents for the Great Detective’s quantum speed mental processes.

The bar has been set dauntingly high for brainy SF on television, notably by "The X-Files," "Battlestar Galactica" and "Orphan Black." So a show as fundamentally square and conventional as "Helix" (SyFy) won’t pass muster. We can reach back as far back as "The Andromeda Strain" (1971) and any of the three versions of "The Thing" (1951, 1982 and 2011) for all-too familiar antecedents to this plot about a runaway strain of mutagenic bacteria in an isolated Arctic research station, transforming the infected into homicidal berserkers. The actors, from leading man Billy Campbell on down, are too TV-pretty to be convincing science heroes from the CDC, and most of the dialog is standard military back chat, as guys in haz-mat suits caterpillar through ventilation shafts. The introduction of lurking government drones plotting a coverup made us fear the worst. If the secret experiments have anything to do with creating super soldiers, we’re gone.

Viewers who make it to episode two of "True Detective" (HBO) (it’s not a show that will enrapture everyone) should be aware that "The King in Yellow," ominously referred to as a possible key to the mystery, is not an invention of series creator Nic Pizzalotto. The title refers to a collection of interconnected supernatural tales first published in 1895 by the American writer Robert W. Chambers. "The King in Yellow" is also a play within the stories "which induces despair or madness in those who read it." The book was an acknowledged influence on H.P. Lovecraft and his creation of that dread volume of occult lore, The Necronomicon. (You can read "The King in Yellow.") The use Pizzalotto makes of the motif will be one more interesting thread to follow in what promises to be a great existential puzzle show.

This article is related to: Girls, Lena Dunham, Lena Dunham, Lena Dunham, Judd Apatow, HBO, HBO , TV Reviews, TV IS THE NEW CINEMA, Television


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.